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Published in PM November 2007
Reviews : Keyboards+Synths
Kurzweil's new digital piano claims to offer some of their best ever sounds, from a sampled Bösendorfer Grand and a range of electric pianos through to strings, pads, mallets and voices. Combine this with an 88-note, weighted hammer-action keyboard, and you have a strong contender for best stage piano on the market.
You don't get an instruction manual with the Kurzweil SP2X stage piano — you get a "Musician's Guide", something that I found instantly promising on opening the box. It immediately reassured me that this piano had been designed with players in mind, not programmers. After all, although the SP2X does offer a number of features that would suit the needs of the computer musician, as far as I'm concerned it's a stage piano — a piano for playing on stage. The other thing I love about the guide is that it has a section emphasising the importance of at least reading the first two chapters, called "For people who do not want to read manuals". That'll be musicians then.
Kurzweil have only been producing electronic instruments since the early 1980s. Since then, they've become very well established in the US, and have attracted some pretty impressive endorsees. But in the UK, the brand has never been quite as popular as the likes of Yamaha, Roland or Korg. Having only been familiar with a few of Kurzweil's synths and expanders before, I was keen to see how their latest stage piano would compare to the competition.
A weighty issue
Out of the box, first impressions were simple: the SP2X is stylish, modern and heavy. I'll admit I've struggled with heavier stage pianos in the past, but at 22kg there are quite a few considerably lighter options out there — some of which, unlike the SP2X, even include built-in speakers. Although speakers certainly aren't essential in a stage piano, they can be handy on stage for monitoring and usually account for little extra weight. However, when you sit down and directly compare these lighter options to the SP2X, the reasons for the Kurzweil's weight soon become clear. The sturdy metal chassis obviously accounts for something when you consider that the lightest weighted 88-note stage pianos on the market are encased in plastic, but more portable instruments of a similar build quality do exist. Where you are most likely to see a fundamentally more important difference is in the feel of the keyboard. Compare the manufacturers' descriptions and you will find 'fully weighted keys' on any modern stage piano, with many also boasting a 'hammer action'. But when you actually play them, the feel of these actions can vary massively, and this really can make a difference to the overall weight of the instrument. It is true to say that personal preference can play a big part here, and players can argue for hours over which instrument feels closest to a real piano. But personally, at least as far as stage pianos are concerned, the action on the SP2X is one of the best I've ever played, certainly at this price point. I immediately found it responsive, fluid and energetic, willing me on, encouraging me to push my playing just that little bit further than I normally might, and rewarding me for my efforts. In essence, the action on the SP2X makes trickier phrases just that little bit less risky, which, in a live situation, can be very reassuring. With lesser actions, you feel that you have to work harder to get the most out of them, and if they are particularly unresponsive you can often feel held back from achieving your potential. The responsive feel of the SP2X made me realise my own limitations, not those of the piano, which is the way it should be. The velocity sensitivity can be adjusted to taste, but I didn't find any need for this.
So, by modern standards the SP2X is on the heavy side, but there are good reasons for this. At the end of the day, it is a trade off, and it depends on what you feel is more important. At this point, it is easy to say that any action this good is surely well worth the sacrifice, but it does deserve some careful consideration. I chose my first stage piano purely on the sound and feel. In the showroom I didn't care that it weighed almost 30 kilos, I just cared that it felt and sounded incredible. After a couple of years gigging with it, however, I finally gave in (before my back did) and bought a nice lightweight alternative to play at what I told myself were 'less important' gigs (usually ones where stairs were involved). It was no comparison in terms of sound or feel, but I could carry it under one arm. Manufacturers have become increasingly aware that portability is a genuine issue for gigging pianists, and they're dead right. We're used to lugging amps and PA around all over the place, but a heavy stage piano is a different matter. Drummers everywhere will probably be incredulous at this idea, but because pianos are long and narrow, the weight distribution makes them far more cumbersome than something squat and square (like an amplifier). Getting them up and down stairs and turning tight corners can be awkward enough, but getting a heavy keyboard out of the back of your car without assistance is really unamusing. I pray for the day that someone finally produces a 77-note fully weighted stage piano. Of course, with a little help from your friends, 22kg is nothing, but the rest of the band are normally too busy lugging their own gear about. Also, I have to say that the SP2X wouldn't be nearly as awkward to move around if it were possible to get a proper grip, but the smooth lines and attractive rounded edges of this piano actually make it quite slippery to hold. Add a flightcase though, and you might end up wishing you played the clarinet.
The lay of the land
The control panel is angled towards you, so that all the knobs and buttons are easy to identify. It's simply laid out, with a basic three-digit LED display at the centre. If the SP2X offered hundreds of presets, I'd be screaming for an LCD capable of showing me the names of the sounds, but the SP2X is a stage piano, not a synth, so it isn't hard to memorise where your top five of its 64 factory presets are located. Directly beneath the display are two '+' and '' value buttons, which double up as Stop and Play buttons for the obligatory onboard demos and rhythms that the SP2X has to offer.
To the right of the display is what the guide refers to as the 'Sound Select Region'. Basically, this area is made up of two rows of eight buttons. The top row comprises eight different categories (such as Pianos), and the bottom row allows you to select one of the eight different variations within that category (such as Concert Grand).
If you have pressed the Rhythm button, these 16 buttons give you access to a selection of onboard rhythms, and if you have pressed the Program button they become a selection of programmes — pre-programmed patches consisting of a number of layered and split sounds. At the far right is an edit section, which allows you to edit and save your sounds.
Just to the left of the display is the effects section, the split and layer function buttons and the Global button, which provides access to the deeper system parameters — it's the kind of button I would never press, but then I'm also one of those people who doesn't like reading manuals.
Further to the left are four control knobs, each with three selectable functions. The first row of functions is for MIDI controls — very handy for software sequencing of course. The second row is assigned to various volumes — in this mode you can use the knobs to set different volume levels for the main sound, the layered sound, the split sound, and the rhythm. The third row is the most important because it assigns the first knob to determine the level of effects being used. Creatively, this is possibly the most expressive performance tool the SP2X has to offer, but more on that later. This row also deals with the reverb level and allows you to select the tempo. The mathematicians amongst you may be wondering what the fourth control knob does in this mode, and the simple answer is nothing.
After that is a Master Volume slider, which, being a large fader button, looks slightly precarious and susceptible to being knocked off at some point. On the far left are the standard pitch-bend and modulation wheels.
The rear panel offers MIDI In, Out and Thru, a USB port for easy connection to your computer (which also allows OS updates), Switch and Control pedal inputs, left and right audio outputs, a headphone output and the power jack input.
Conspicuous by their absence are any line-level inputs, which would allow a player to route a sound module through the piano and back out again. If this function was available, the piano would also benefit from a MIDI On/Off switch, so that the module would only be active when needed. However, the SP2X clearly hasn't been developed with a sound module in mind. Although the raised control panel does make the functions easier to see, it also means that you couldn't put, say, a half-rack sound module (such as the Kurzweil ME1) on top of the piano and still get to the module's controls or see its display. As the SP2X doesn't feature any expansion slots, you'll just have to hope that it offers all the right sounds for your set.
But what does it sound like?
Of course, when I first got the piano out of its box, I didn't really spend all this time familiarising myself with the functions and layout. I only did that later so that I could write this review. As soon as I'd hauled the SP2X onto a sturdy stand, plugged in the included piano-type sustain pedal and powered her up, all I wanted to know was what the sounds were like.
When you switch it on, the SP2X plays the last sound used. I didn't realise this at the time, so I was surpised that the first sound I heard was a Pipe Organ. I tried to imagine when I would ever use that sound in my set, and wondered whether Kurzweil had really aimed this piano at heathens like me. At this point, of course, I hadn't explored the manual past the bit written for 'people who do not want to read manuals', so I wasn't to know.
Just as the quality of a piano's action can be debated long into the night by pale, twitchy, long-fingered aficionados of the ivories, so can the sound. Different manufacturers tend to offer different styles of piano sound. Fans of Yamaha will talk about a bright and lively sound, Roland warmth and depth, and Technics (when they were still in production) were acknowledged as being softer and more mellow. I would imagine that Kurzweil fans talk about a warm, round, refined sound. Personally, I found the first few variations passable, but a little dull, and somehow lacking in sparkle. In some ways, I felt that the main piano sound was almost too perfect, too clean, and lacking that percussive edge that you get from a real acoustic piano. I was playing through a small PA, so I tried to EQ the sound to my taste, but wasn't satisfied. Even using headphones, I found it hard to tell the difference between the first few options. There were changes in tone, but between some of the piano sounds these changes were so subtle that I'd imagine only dogs would notice. Then the piano sounds, which were a bit sparkier, almost went too far the other way. Also, I found that as I approached the lower register, anything more complicated than playing the root and fifth sounded very muddy. Add a third and the chords became a mush of bass, with very poor definition between the notes. Two of the eight options were closer to what I was looking for and, by editing the reverb setting and EQ'ing the PA, I managed to get close to what I was looking for. I realised that, for me, this could prove to be a bit of a sticking point, but it is all a matter of taste.
Any frustration with the acoustic piano sounds was completely washed away by the electric pianos. The SP2X offers a fantastic selection of irresistible Rhodes, Dynos, FM pianos and Wurlis. I don't know how much time I lost to these sounds before I finally moved on, but once I discovered how intensely expressive some of these sounds are when you use the relevant controller knob to increase and decrease the level of the effects, I didn't want to stop playing. Coupled with the wonderfully fluid action of the keyboard, it felt like something approaching piano perfection. I was enjoying one of those rare moments where you aren't sure whether you are playing the piano or it is playing you.
This really opened my eyes to the power of the effects that the SP2X has to offer. Kurzweil have included a plethora of delays, flangers, choruses, phasers, shapers, compressors, enhancers, filters, rotaries, distortions, tremolos and more, which you can combine with any of the 58 different reverb options. The best thing about these effects is the way that you can use the control knobs to edit their depth on the fly, adding a powerful and expressive dimension to your performance.
Eventually, I moved on to see what else the SP2X had to offer. The majority of the organs are best suited to church music — only one really lends itself to a typical rock, jazz or blues set list, and despite being able to vary the sound using the modulation wheel and effects knob to control the rotary speed, I found it hard to get much joy out of it. This bank also contains two passable clavs and a harpsichord. The church market is a big one in the UK and cannot be ignored, but I was expecting a better range of jazz, rock and gospel organ sounds. I can see this being another sticking point for anyone who plays in a soul band.
The next bank offers some nice strings and attractive organic pads, which are quite effective when layered up with some of the other sounds. Again, the effects allow for more expression here, but I found myself drifting off into the realm of the one-fingered synth player. Moving on from that, you get some reasonable brass and some very playable lead sounds, which left me wishing for a joystick controller, followed by a selection of very clever, but frankly pointless, vocal patches. I've never understood why every synth seems to have a selection of scat sounds. Some of the 'oohs' and 'aahs' might find a place in a Pink Floyd tribute band, but does anyone ever really use all those 'do-bops' and 'ba-wows'? I certainly can't remember ever hearing them at a gig. I'd booked a rehearsal session with the band for the following day and I resolved to put these patches to the test.
The Voice bank is also home to a few synths, any of which could probably find a home in a prog-rock set list. The next bank consists of guitars and basses, which would certainly be suitable for recording or sequencing, but I found nothing I could imagine using live. Finally, the drums and percussion fill the last bank of sounds. Again, handy for sequencing, but you'd never use them on stage.
Pressing the Program button replaces these simple patches with 16 program presets, each one consisting of a number of instrumental sounds, either layered together or split across the keyboard. I don't know how much thought went into programming these presets, but I didn't feel inspired by any of them. However, it isn't hard to see how you could build your own program patches to create your own sounds.
Having spent a happy weekend getting to know the SP2X (with most of that time spent either messing around with the effects or indulging in the electric pianos), I invited a few bandmates round for a bit of a jam, to see how the SP2X fared in a real live environment. The following Sunday, the bass player and guitarist both arrived early (the drummer rang to say he'd be late). Once we'd got settled, we warmed up with a nice and lazy acoustic number. The bass player — a sound engineer who has mastered albums by the likes of Morcheeba and Oasis — cocked his head like a puzzled spaniel and frowned at the piano sound, confirming my fears. "It's a bit... dead," he offered. By now, I had got much better at manipulating the effects, so I switched to one of the slightly brighter sounds, tweaked the reverb and added just a tiny bit of chorus. It made a big improvement, and saving the edited version was easily done.
Without our drummer, we decided to try jamming along to one of the SP2X's onboard rhythms. There are 60 pre-recorded drum patterns on offer, covering a variety of styles from basic rock and pop to Latin and world rhythms. I selected something funky and upbeat, and we started jamming over it. At first, the drums were a bit quiet in comparison to the piano, but this was soon fixed by using the controller knobs in the volume section. I could quickly see that having these rhythms onboard is a useful song-writing tool, as we picked up the groove and started working out a few phrases. Things started to get a little bit repetitive, so I decided to switch, in mid-flow, to an alternative rhythm. We stalled. The rhythm changed immediately, rather than waiting until the end of the bar as I was expecting it to, and the new pattern came in at a different BPM. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but this kind of technology is available in even the simplest of home keyboards. There are no intros, fills or endings available either, making the onboard rhythm guide little more than a glorified metronome — which is a shame, because some of the patterns are very useable and a lot of fun to jam along to. Of course, no one outside the Phoenix Club would use the rhythm guide live on stage anyway, as it's clearly a song-writing tool, but I'd much rather have a few more advanced options in this area than all those synth and scat sounds.
Eventually, our drummer arrived, and we started working through our set. Playing with the band made me realise how few sounds I actually ever use. More than half our set features acoustic piano, despite the fact that I gig with a stage piano and a sound module, so have hundreds of sounds at my disposal. Of course, the hundreds of sounds that you don't use aren't important, but the half-dozen that you do are, which is why Kurzweil are trying to cover so many bases. The glorious majesty of the electric piano sounds didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the band. I've known many occasions when a guitarist's tone has become the focus of much praise, but I've never seen a band get so emotional about a phased Rhodes before. Once more, I could feel the SP2X taking over as we settled into the groove and the fluidity of the action, coupled with the expressive nature of the sounds, really started to make things happen. Again, it felt as if the SP2X was urging me on, tempting me to try new ideas and helping me to discover new phrases. It wasn't long before people were saying things like "lets try that one again, but with the Wurli sound this time instead of the piano". In this way, the SP2X gradually managed to completely change our sound. At the end of one number, our drummer folded his arms and asked, "Do you have to give that thing back?"
For the sake of experimentation, I tried using a few of the other sounds while we had the band together. The strings formed a lush, warm pad under the electric guitar but, as I'd predicted, the brass ensemble just didn't cut through. We messed about with a few synths for a bit, but the lure of the EPs was too strong and I spent far more time than I really should have done stuck in phaser heaven.
Finally, I threw in a bit of scat, just to see how it gelled with the rest of the band. I was treated to a sullen stare from our bass player. "Starting a Bobby McFerrin tribute band, are you?" he asked.
The SP2X has a lot to offer — too much, in my opinion. There are quite a few sounds and features that I could honestly do without and, although you could argue that someone, somewhere, really does need a voice going "pow!" more than they need a decent gospel organ, I'm not convinced. I just can't believe that the SP2X has really been developed with the gigging musician in mind. The lack of line-ins, the slightly awkward shape and the choice of instruments all back up my theory. However, no matter how many of this piano's features don't quite seem to have been properly thought out, that sublime action and those powerful effects more than make up for these idiosyncracies. I'm going to find it hard to part with. 0
On-board effects? Oh yes!
The Kurzweil SP2X's dual effects processors (A & B) offer a vast range of effects, including:
8 filtered effects.
3 wide stereo.
44 combination effects chains utilizing Kurzweil's Laserverb.
Published in PM November 2007
In this article:
Kurweil SP2X £799
Kurzweil's new digital stage piano combines a beautiful, proper piano action with a very strong sound set and effects processing. Like many gigging players, though, I would happily trade some of its less core sound set for a couple more strong staple sounds. It's not the lightest or the most portable stage keyboard, but that's an inevitable trade-off for the excellent weighted hammer action. All in all, a very strong contender for the stage piano market.
88-note, fully weighted hammer-action keyboard.
Adjustable velocity sensitivity curve.
Seven-segment, three-digit LED display.
64-voice, dynamically allocated polyphony.
64 factory presets.
16 user MIDI setup locations, with four programmable zones for splits and layers.
64 pre-programmed drum patterns.
Pitch wheel, modulation wheel, four front panel rotary encoders, master volume slider, dual-switch pedal input, continuous control pedal input.
Two quarter-inch balanced TRS analog outputs.
Front panel quarter-inch headphone output.
24-bit D-A converters.
MIDI In, Out & Thru.
Complete MIDI functionality over USB, including data storage and free OS updates.
Weight: 22 kg.
External AC power supply.
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